The trouble with dogs

The first hunting dog I ever owned cost me $20. That's not a large amount of money unless you're 12 years old, which I was. It meant my first dog meant going into debt. Little did I know, decades later, I'd still be making the payments.

No matter what the newspaper ads say, free puppies and dogs are like free lunches. There's no such thing.

My own venture into dog debt began with Taffy, a light blonde Cocker Spaniel with a great nose for birds, cockle burrs and fresh cow pies in which to roll. Despite her pasture wanderings, Taffy could do no wrong in my young eyes. She was always full of surprises. Sometimes she'd even come when called. She was really a birdy dog, too. If she smelled the scent of a pheasant, hot or cold, she'd follow that bird to the next county and often did. I would have had lots of pheasants, if I could have run a little faster. Instead, thanks to Taffy, I saw lots of birds out of range. Probably just as well. If the pheasants had been close, I'd have probably missed anyway.

Rude awakening

Thinking of Taffy reminds me of a black Lab named Fancy. To paraphrase W.C. Fields, "there's never a hunting dog so bad that it can't serve as a good example."

Fancy belonged to Bob, a friend of mine, who eventually realized that as a hunting dog, Fancy was several cards short of a full deck. You could say Fancy was unique. She was a retriever who hated to retrieve. All of which explains why one morning as we were about to go duck hunting , Bob decided to leave Fancy in the motel room.

I was particularly overjoyed by the decision. And I knew Bob was relieved, too. Fancy actually was a better dog in a motel room than a bird field. She loved to sleep in Bob's bed. Being a laid back dog, we also knew Fancy wouldn't bother the maid when she came to clean the room.

As it turned out, the maid didn't even try to make the bed or open the curtains. For one thing, she couldn't find the drapes. Fancy must have tore down the curtains shortly after we left so she could see Bob leave. But Fancy didn't quit with the drapes.

We can only guess why she wanted to dig through the mattress. Probably thought she could dig her way out and find Bob. She was as far as the bedsprings when the maid knocked.

When we returned from duck hunting, we should have known something was wrong. It was still early, yet everybody was up, including the motel manager who was waiting to greet us. We thought he wanted to see our ducks. But when he started talking to Bob his teeth and lips barely moved. His nose was gasping like a pressure cooker gauge. Obviously, the task of managing a motel had shattered his nerves. When he pointed at Fancy his hands shook, poor fella.

To Bob's credit, he apologized for everything Fancy did, including the fit of barking just before sunrise. Bob didn't argue over the $300 bill, either. Oh, he could have protested the drape charges, I suppose. Actually, Fancy had only shredded one pair of drapes, leaving the other curtain somewhat messy but easily cleaned. Certainly, the manager wasn't exaggerating over the condition of the mattress. On that, Bob agreed, too. It's twin size had been halved by a gaping hole.

The door also was damaged, although Bob said it's amazing how teeth and claw marks will disappear with a little sandpaper and wood filler. On the way home I told Bob I knew how he felt about making the motel manager and 30 guests angry.

A taste for door handles

I made the same mistakeĀ… sort of. One time when Coot, my old Lab, was a puppy, he was left in my truck while my friend Jay and I took a hike in a grouse woods. While we were gone, Coot ate the left door on the driver's side. Not the whole door, mind you. Just the chewable parts.

Luckily, it was my truck. The only thing Jay lost was his new genuine leather holster with the fancy etching. Coot ate the lower half. I apologized but that didn't do much to restore Jay's holster. But I never left Coot in the truck again.

No dogs are perfect, of course. For example, I'll never forget the day the Brittany Spaniel puppy I had ordered showed up at the house. I'd bought the pup sight unseen from a professional dog trainer. It was the cutest little black puppy.

Yes, I know Brittany spaniels are not supposed to have black coats. While my daughters kissed and hugged the pup I frantically called the trainer. He said the pup was "a little dark" but should lighten up as it gets older. If not, he said, I could bring the pup back and get a Brittany that looked like a Brittany.

A day later it was too late to think of exchanging pups. My daughters had developed an iron-clad attachment to the pup, naming the dog "Kelly."

Three dog trainers tried in vain to make Kelly act like a Brittany. But she just didn't care for birds. Now garbage? Well, that's another story.

January through March 2003, "Backroads with Ron & Raven" airs Sundays at 7:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2. Ron Schara's short feature of the same name airs Saturdays on ESPN2 at 7:55 a.m. ET. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.